Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
As we have seen before with this first section of the Sermon on the Mount, these verses each present a ‘balance’ or a kind of ‘trade’. The first half of each verse represents a quality that can be expected to be found and growing in any person who belongs to Jesus and who wishes to draw close to Him. The second half shows the consequence of developing those qualities. In one sense these verses can also be considered to be promises.
The first thing that can be noticed is that the promise in this verse is the same as that in the first of the beatitudes – Blessed are the poor in spirit. And considering this, we actually have a help to the understanding of today’s verse.
You may remember that part of the understanding of this was to realise that you are not sufficient of yourself. Once we understand that we are dependent, in our lives as Christians, on the resources of heaven and help from the Lord, that help becomes available to us.
The main thing here is that we are not complete, as Christian spiritual beings, of ourselves or in our own strength. We find our strength, our completeness, and all that we need to live and grow as Christians, by the strength and power of the Holy Spirit indwelling us, and by committing everything to prayer.
This is also the basis of today’s verse. The righteousness spoken of here is nothing that we have or can present to the Lord of ourselves. We can’t achieve it in our own strength. We have none to present before the Lord that will be acceptable to Him. We can’t buy it either. So where can we get the righteousness that is spoken of in this verse?
Of course this is the central message of the gospel. The righteousness that is acceptable to our Lord can only be found in Christ Jesus. He is the one who paid the price for all unrighteousness by his passion and sacrifice on the cross at Calvary. As we realise and come to accept for ourselves that this was the great rescue plan of God for us, we can come before God the Father clothed not in our own righteousness, but in that which was bought for us at great price by His son Jesus Christ.
As we live and grow in the Lord, growing in our friendship with Him and learning to please Him and become like Him, the quality of righteousness will also develop and be demonstrated in our lives. Our behaviour changes.
Sometimes we discover that things we liked to do in the past do not interest us so much as before, and other things that we were not interested to do (and maybe even made fun of others who liked to do them) suddenly begin to feel like the most wonderful things to introduce into our lives. So in the past we may have found the reading of scriptures or spending time in prayer to be boring at worst, tedious at best. Yet as we grow closer to Jesus more and to understand His ways, these things begin to feel different and their importance begins to grow more and more in our lives.
But this verse also talks about persecution, as does the next verse. The next verse is a different kind of persecution, but the kind of persecution that I will talk about here (and is my personal understanding and experience from this verse) is a very sad form of persecution.
I have been to countries where, to be a Christian is to be persecuted. I spend a lot of time in another country where the persecution of Christianity lasted for 80 years, and where faith had often to be hidden for the sake of survival. Yet there is another kind of persecution. It has been there throughout history. It is still very much with us today.
What is this persecution? That from others who claim the title of ‘Christian.’ In my own country it is not that far back in history when Roman Catholicism was not tolerated and outlawed in British law. During the century before that many ‘papists’ were hung, tortured to death, disembowelled, burnt at the stake, beheaded, and had other terrible things done to them.
In times before that Catholic rulers in England brought protestants to similar fates, especially during the reign of Queen Mary (and why she became known as ‘bloody Mary’). There were the occasional bloody skirmishes between Catholic and Orthodox Christians after the Great Schism of a thousand years ago. When Augustine arrived in England to bring the gospel, he ignored the fact that there was already a well-established church of England. He came with a legion of soldiers and enforced the turning of the kingdom to Catholicism with the shedding of much Christian blood. There is much bloody history to be found when you study the history of the church, with Christians in nearly every century killing and persecuting other Christians.
There may be less killing of Christians by Christians in recent years and yet there is still a growing persecution in the church. And today it is the same kind of problem that Jesus seemed to face every day of His ministry from His fellow Jews – legalism and over-literal interpretation of the scriptures.
The sad fact is that there are very many who claim to know Christ, and yet seem to deny the wonderful things that He achieved for us on the cross. They would have us all walking in the paths of Old Testament legalism. And very much we can find that the scribes and Pharisees are alive and well in the church today.
Instead of living by acknowledgement of the wonderful grace purchased for us by the shedding of the precious blood of Jesus, these Christians would have you follow rules, regulations, doctrines and dictates that will bind you with chains heavier and stronger than the chains of sin that held you before. You will find yourself judged by your works and by your doctrines, and not by your acceptance of the gospel message, freely given and freely received.
Righteousness is our inheritance in Christ, not received by works but by faith.
The sad fact is that this legalism and expectation of some Christians is the polar opposite of the gospel message. It is a salvation by works – and yet these same Christians will speak of being saved by faith and not by works. Being blind of the paradox they would be as the blind leading the blind.
There is one thing for certain: if you have received Christ as your saviour and wish to become closer to Him and more like him, then there will be those claiming to be of Christ who will wish to place new chains on you and to remove you of the freedoms bought by Jesus at such great cost. They will claim that your salvation is in peril if you do not follow their method. They will claim that any other teaching is from the devil. And they will cover you in heavy chains removing the joy of the salvation that should be yours. They will argue their corner using some scriptures while ignoring others…
So, to such as these, your righteousness is judged according to how much you walk the ‘righteous path’ as described by scriptural laws. They do not realise that, by this, they nullify the work of the sacrifice of our Lord Jesus.
As we accept the work of the gospel and walk in our lives closer and closer to Jesus, we are accepted as righteous by the Father from the start. It is not dependent on works. It is not dependent on following rules and regulations.
And the most glorious thing about it is this: as we walk a path of love before our Lord, the characteristics that have been mentioned in all of our studies so far will all be growing in our lives. They will develop and bear fruit like trees planted, rooted, and watered by the Great Gardener. You do not need to do anything beyond walking close with our Lord and with the desire to know Him more.
But the followers of legalism will despise your freedom. They will try to convince you of unrighteousness. They will declare that you will burn in hell. They will wish to place the chains of legalism on you.
Sadly, those who truly follow Christ according to the gospel as it really is will find most opposition from others who claim to be Christians. Your righteousness, in which you walk in complete freedom, will seem to them as dirty rags. Yet you have the words of the apostle Paul for whom all the legalism of his Pharisaical past counted to him as less than nothing. In fact, that legalism was, to him, as filthy rags (a rather polite translation. He was wanting to state something that was not only disgustingly unclean, but also religiously unclean to the Jews. And so the original language suggests that Paul actually spoke of soiled menstrual cloths).
For the sake of righteousness, we will find ourselves on one side or other of the legalism divide. Don’t let the blind fool you and place chains on you again. Stay free with the freedom purchased for us by Christ.